Being Different

Yesterday was Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. I wrote about him two Fridays ago when it wasn’t looking good for him healthwise. Now the reports are looking up. People around the world celebrated his birthday by giving 67 minutes of service in his name. 

I prayed to be more like Nelson Mandela, braver, kinder, thinking more of others than myself, willing to make sacrifices. But this was done by a white woman in the safety of her own home. Let’s face it, I’ve never been the object of racial discrimination.

Well, there was that one time.

Right out of college, I decided I wanted to travel and learn about other religions and cultures. I wanted to leave America behind and see what other countries were like. Sure, I’d been to Mexico and to Canada, but never for more than a few hours or days. I decided to teach English in Japan for a year.

Japan is a safe place, right? Not for me. Let’s just say it was a year to remember. I got hit by a car on my bike. My house was broken into while I was in it. I was raped.

A few of these things were “colored” by my race and culture. I was told that the “thief” broke into my house because I was a foreigner and he wanted to see how I lived. He was just curious about the gaijin, which is what the Japanese call foreigners.

The rapist was my boyfriend at the time. He had come over for dinner. I was told later that he saw dinner at my house as an invitation to rape. That’s not the way it works in America.

As for the bike accident, it was my fault, I guess. I never saw him coming.

The point is, my race was something that was pretty much impossible to ignore in Japan, at least where I was. I was the only gaijin in the small town where I lived. In Japan, the saying goes, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down.” I stuck out.

For the most part, it was not a bad thing. It was a reason some people wanted to be my friend—to practice speaking English, to have a foreign friend, to learn about America. It was why most people tried to help me.

There were just those other two incidents and the feeling of being different. Everywhere I went in my little town, people noticed me. I looked different and it seems I acted different, too.  

I still can’t say I’ve experienced anything like the blacks under apartheid or in America, although I think racism has improved in both places over the years.

There’s just one thing that I try to do because I know what it’s like to feel different. I try to treat people the same no matter what. I read for a blind man in Tallahassee for a while. He was in a master’s program and he needed textbooks that he couldn’t get in Braille or audio read to him. I never took his hand and guided him around unless he asked me to. He liked me for not assuming he wanted help. Said it was nice to have someone treat him just like everybody else.

As a Christian, I don’t believe in gays getting married, but I’ve known gay couples and I try not to treat them differently just because they’re gay. In a private moment, if they asked my position, I’d tell them, but not until the right private moment. Who am I to shun them or shout at them? They’re people, too.

I’m running out of space, so I won’t go on, but the point is this. People don’t want to get pounded down, nor do most want to get special treatment. It is nice to treat people nicely, but not because of their disability, gender, sexual orientation, race or other “differentness,” but because of their souls. We all have one.  


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